THE JAZZ AGE (ROARING TWENTIES) in F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S “THE GREAT GATSBY” The Analysis of the Great Gatsby in the perspective of “The American Basic Values”


THE JAZZ AGE (ROARING TWENTIES) in F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S

“THE GREAT GATSBY”

The Analysis of the Great Gatsby in the perspective of “The American Basic Values”

 

Introduction

In 1920s, or era which is sometimes called as “roaring twenties”[1] after World War I, America went under a radical change and social reform.  The developments in industrialization caused decay in moral values. This resulted in materialism’s obliteration of the doctrines and rules of moral duties. Thus, the society was torn apart due to the clash between old and new values. The Great Gatsby, a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald[2] reflects the American society during this period and clearly portrays the contrast between traditional and corrupted values by manifesting the distinct character traits, attitudes and habits of the characters; their individual patterns of typical lives and thoughts about the others.[3]

This paper is inspired by the illustration of the condition of the American society in the 1920’s and the associated beliefs, values and dreams of the American population at that time. These beliefs, values and dreams can be summed up be what is termed the “American Dream”[4], a dream of money, wealth, prosperity and the happiness that supposedly came with the booming economy and get-rich-quick schemes that formed the essential underworld of American upper-class society. This underworld infiltrated the upper echelons and created such a moral decay within general society that paved the way for the ruining of dreams and dashing of hopes as they were placed confidently in the chance for opportunities that could be seized by one and all.

In Fitzgerald’s novel, we can get illustration of the American Dream and the “foul dust” or the carelessness of a society that floats in the wake of this dream. By looking at each character and their situation and ambition, it can be seen that the American Dream was not limited to one social class or type of person, that it was nation wide and was found within everyone.
 

The Analysis of the Great Gatsby in the perspective of “The American Basic Values”

We have learnt that there are some basic values that become “traditional” American values. Three represent traditional reasons why immigrants have been drawn to America: the chance for individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and material wealth. In order to achieve these benefits, however, there were prices to be paid: self-reliance, competition, and hard work. In time, these prices themselves became a part of the traditional value system.[5]

Old values represent the traditional life style and are based on morality and virtue. The characteristics of these values are portrayed by some characters, events and settings throughout the book. The positive aspect of the twenties’ attitude is implied in Anthony’s meditation by the phrase “lusterless and unromantic heaven.”[6] Firstly, old values give one a sense of right or wrong and obedience to social conventions. For example, Nick, the narrator of the book who lives according to these values says that he is slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on his desires. Then he observes the people around him and adds that he is one of the few honest people that he has ever known.[7] His ideas show that spiritual values such as self-control, honesty and human respect are significant but rare. Secondly, the old life style includes close and warm friendships that depend on respect and love. Gatsby trusts Nick and shares his secrets with him. They establish a genuine friendship. This emphasizes the importance and scarcity of sincere relationships. Furthermore, the old life style is characterized by a certain modesty in which wealth and public show of it are not the only sources of validation. This way of life is illustrated by the settings of the book. For instance, West Egg, where Nick and Gatsby live, corresponds to the traditional life style. Nick describes this place and writes:

I lived at West Egg, the-well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them. my house was at the very tip of the egg, only fifty yards from the Sound, and squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season. the one on my right was a colossal affair by any standard-it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. It was Gatsby’s mansion. Or, rather, as I didn’t know Mr. Gatsby, it was a mansion inhabited by a gentleman of that name. My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires-all for eighty dollars a month.[8]

The above quotation gives description that this place is associated by old-fashioned stability, modesty and frugality; concepts that are meaningful according to the old moral code.  From the position as narrator we have access to the thoughts and feelings of Nick Carraway more than any other characters; but this same position also reduces the effectiveness of the reader as a judge of character because he is presented in a biased way compared to others. With that said, it can be seen that Nick suffers greatly from his experiences in New York. His regard for human decency is ruined and he leaves with his hopes dashed and a disgust at how the materialism that runs rampant throughout his social class is capable of ruining lives and dreams. Nick, as with all characters is a believer in the American Dream  because even he moves East to work in the bond business – then a booming industry. Because of the actions of his cousin Daisy, her husband Tom and the beliefs held by his love interest in the novel Jordan, Nick is finally privy to how the dreams and values held by all these people overrun their sense of sensible behavior and how the general society caused their personalities to be affected this way.

The transformation between James Gatz and Jay Gatsby is an example of how people can transform themselves according to their ambition for wealth and prosperity. The use of illegal activities to gain Gatsby’s wealth is alluded to in the book; this shows the extent of how the American Dream circumvented the moral revulsion and pushed people who were crazy about money into crime – driving the moral standing of wealthier citizens into the ground. To Gatsby, his dream was symbolized by Daisy; Gatsby even says that her voice sounds like money, a direct correlation between Daisy and the wealth and happiness that Gatsby would supposedly enjoy if only he could have married Daisy but could still enjoy if he had married her five years later. His pursuit of happiness with Daisy was the ultimate cause of the degradation of Gatsby’s morals and realistic dreams. This is because he held an unrealistic view of life and how he could recreate the past. His dreams had distorted reality to the point where when his rationality realized that the image of life and of Daisy did not coincide with the real life version his mind did not grasp that perhaps the dream had receded to the point of no return, consequently his dreams helped to result in the devastating end that was the finish of The Great Gatsby.

This difference in Gatsby’s mental image and the real image of daisy was due to the incompleteness of Daisy’s character. Her rendering of the American Dream included fun, comfortable living with money and influence. To do this her marriage choices were limited to men with money, preferably with old inherited money, the type that prestige accompanies. The reader can see that Daisy is a superficial character who considers happiness more of a physical state than a mental state by the scene when she is talking about her daughter and what she said when she was born: “that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool”; this shows how Daisy thinks about life and how happiness can be bought by not being aware and presumably by having money and being fooled with it. The results of her dream and the methods she used to accomplish her dream led to the unhappiness of her marriage, when she again tried to capture happiness whilst still keeping her dream in front of her it ended in the tragedy that The Great Gatsby depicted. If Daisy had indeed been concerned with happiness, as was implied throughout the novel, then she would not have been as concerned with money as she obviously was – she would have waited for Gatsby to come back from the war and not have married Tom; a decision based on her thoughts of what her life should have been life and a decision that cost her happiness. The moral decadence and carelessness of the American dream is also illustrates accurately in Daisy in the situation of the killing of Myrtle and her abandonment of Gatsby just before and after his death. The fact that she ran over Myrtle without stopping and did not have the bravery to tell Tom shows how Daisy was always thinking of herself and of her own comfort rather than the safety, wellbeing and feelings of others.

Tom’s interpretation of the American dream does involve money it is not his prime concern as it is with many of the other characters. His dream also concentrates of power, gained through the prestige that is associated with old money. His self-confidence and utter belief in his superiority are an example of how he thinks about himself in relation to all other people, especially ones of a lower social class. Tom’s dream of power and superiority led to his moral decline that contributed to Tom ruining his marriage with Daisy and ultimately her wishes of having a truly happy marriage. Not only did his lack of morals affect Daisy and her happiness it also fostered the situation of Gatsby’s and George’s death which was the ultimate example of how the effects of the American dream caused society to change their morals and exhibit actions that were detrimental to society in general.

Myrtle, as almost a coconspirator with Tom, is to blame for the unhappiness of her own marriage with George and Tom’s marriage with Daisy but the latter would already have been unhappy because of Tom’s former indiscretions. Her dream of riches and of belonging to a social elite blinded her from the chance that perhaps she could have tried to make her marriage with George work and hence achieve happiness, though this can be doubted generally because it can be said that a woman with personality and ambitions such as myrtle could hardly have been happy with a “spiritless” man like George. Supposedly she married George because she thought he was a gentleman, something that the social elite traditionally value; though only if he is also rich enough to belong there in the first place. Because myrtle’s personality is so strong it would have indeed been easy for her aspirations for her style of living to corrupt her values and so open the door for the ruining of her dreams. This ruination indeed happened because of the man she fell in love with, Tom, and what he stood for – money, power and materialism.

George, as a complete opposite to myrtle, turned to a more introvert person as a consequence of his style of living in the garage. Towards the end of the novel the reader may question his state of mind because of some of his actions toward myrtle, especially his opinion towards the eyes of the T.J. Eckleberg advertisement, whilst it is obvious to the reader that they do indeed represent God or at least the fact that the moral decay is being subtly observed it could not be obvious to the characters of the book (except George). This could be because they were indeed far too busy gallivanting around New York with their lack of morals and the behavior that was the The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact that George did not belong to a church he became religious towards the end of the novel, perhaps as a reaction to the behavior of his wife and the depression that would have been associated with both that and the failings of his business. His dreams are not well documented in the novel, apart from the obvious dream of money and making a profit of his business, this obvious dream was in fact ruined because of the fact that not everyone could get rich (the basis of the American dream) and the immoral behavior of his wife and the rest of the characters.

As another contrast to all of the aforementioned characters Jordan’s immoral behavior does not directly lead to any of the situations in the novel, whilst she did encourage Daisy to have an affair with Gatsby she could not be blamed for the deaths or the unhappiness of any of the other characters. Jordan can be viewed as a representative of general society as she does display many immoral traits (Such as moving the ball illegally during one of her tournaments and being more than slightly hypocritical when she talks about careless people, saying she “hates careless people” when she admits that she is one.) that contribute to the overall ethical decay within the American aristocracy.

 

Conclusion

Fitzgerald shows that in the social classes that were represented in The Great Gatsby there is a running theme of how the American dream affects all of the characters, they each have their own aspirations for their own life but more often than not they revolve around money and the effects that wealth has on their style of life. Because of the tragic events within The Great Gatsby and the fact that the characters who are still alive at the end of the novel, bar Nick, are not drastically altered by their experience lend to the view that the 1920’s and 1930’s or the Jazz Age held a society of people who were ruled by materialism and trivial and depthless beliefs and values.

On the other hand, after World War I as people got away from the traditional life style, their moral considerations were suspended. These changes are illustrated by the personalities, behavior and life styles of several characters in the book. Firstly, these characters are concerned chiefly and only with themselves. As Nick observes Tom and Daisy who have been cruel ad vulgar, he explains their attitudes towards others by saying that “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made“(page 187). Throughout the book, they act vulgarly and cruelly. This criticism points out the fact that selfishness is one of the major traits present in the society. Secondly, although people meet frequently in social events, they lack sincere intimacy. At Gatsby’s party, Nick hears the guests milling around, exchanging rumors about their host but no one seems to know the truth about Gatsby’s wealth or personal history. This indicates that although people seem very close, they don’t really share anything and are distant. The corruption of society is clearly indicated by this secession among people. In addition, suspension of devotion to family comes along with corruption of values. For example, Jay Gatsby was in fact called James Gatz. He changed his name because “His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people-his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God” (page 104). As it is emphasized in this quote, Jay Gatsby struggles to establish a new life for himself just because his parents are poor and don’t fit into the idealistic figure of modern family. Furthermore, materialism replaces the vanishing values and money promotes to be the only aspiration of the people. The luxury of Tom’s house is described by elaborate decorations such as “the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling”, “wine-colored rug” and an “enormous couch” (page 12). This rich decoration shows how important appearance and money are. The fact that decorations of this house are considered significant and worked on elaborately despite the problematic relationships is a proof of the corruption in the society.  For short,  there are two distinct groups in the society: The conventional people and the “modern” ones who are pursuers of power and superiority. They disregard moral values and are carried away by a stream of materialism. There is a huge gap between these two groups. This secession ruins the unity, peace and prosperity in the society.


[1] “The decade of the 1920s is often characterized as a period of American prosperity and optimism. It was the “Roaring Twenties,” the decade of bath tub gin, the model T, the $5 work day, the first transatlantic flight, and the movie. It is often seen as a period of great advance as the nation became urban and commercial (Calvin Coolidge declared that America’s business was business). The decade is also seen as a period of rising intolerance and isolation: chastened by the First World War, historians often point out that Americans retreated into a provincialism evidenced by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the anti- radical hysteria of the Palmer raids, restrictive immigration laws, and prohibition. Overall, the decade is often seen as a period of great contradiction: of rising optimism and deadening cynicism, of increasing and decreasing faith, of great hope and great despair. Put differently, historians usually see the 1920s as a decade of serious cultural conflict.”

[2] Fitzgerald was born on September 29, 1896 in St. Paul Minnesota. His prename, Francis Scott Key, was given to him to honor his distant ancestor who wrote the National Anthem. Fitzgerald’s father, Edward Fitzgerald, was from Maryland while his mother, Mary McQuillan, was the daugher of an Irish-Catholic immigrant.

[3] The 1920’s, also known as the Jazz Age, were wild times, and Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was its king. Although he lead one of the most wild and luxurious lifestyles of anyone during the decade, Fitzgerald was known more for his prominent works of literature, which have gained a permanent place among the American classics.

 [4] The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States of America in which democratic ideals are perceived as a promise of prosperity for its people. In the American Dream, first expressed by James Truslow Adams in 1931, citizens of every rank feel that they can achieve a “better, richer, and happier life.” The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence which states that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jim. Cullen The American dream: a short history of an idea that shaped a nation, Oxford University Press US, 2004. page 6

 [5] Maryanne Kearny Datesman. The American Ways : An Introduction to American Culture. New York. Longman. 1997 page 23

 [6] Arthur Mizener. F. Scott Fitzgerald : A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey : Prentice Hall. Inc 1963 page 69.

 [7]F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. Page 64

[8] Ibid. page 9

 

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